Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) is a firm, whip-smart older woman who takes pride in being difficult. She dwells within a veritable Fortress of Solitude (courtesy of set designer Santo Loquasto), though a comfortable one, with sofa'd nooks nestled sweetly between the dominating stacks of books that are her livelihood (she writes short stories and--for the last twenty years--has taught them, too). Buried beside those fictions are scraps of her rich past, and one would be so lucky as to sit at her cluttered kitchen table, share a pot of tea, and soak up some of that wisdom and pain, from her Jewish childhood to her "virginal" affairs with a famous poet, Delmore Schwartz. And for a while, that's exactly what Donald Margulies's Collected Stories does, wisely dodging the dreaded "show, don't tell" credo of writers by introducing Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson), a graduate student who idolizes Steiner. But two things plague the show from the start: neither Morrison the character nor Paulson the actor are strong enough to steal the show from Steiner the character nor Lavin the actor, and when they inevitably do, the show sags.
Unsurprisingly, Collected Stories is at its best at the very middle--the two scenes before and after intermission. There, Steiner still dominates the picture, but does so while realizing that she is losing her power--worse, that she is running out of time. It's a difficult role (one that was last filled by the indomitable Uta Hagen in 1998), but Lavin nails it with the little things, building her plausibility in the final scene by showing sparks of her jealousy early on, and tempering her aging by filling the initial scenes with buoyant springs in her step, especially as she opts to take pride in "discovering" and "shaping" her pupil, rather than silently shutting her down. Both Morrison and Steiner use fiction to get some exposition about themselves out of the way (a necessary evil, since Margulies skips whole years between scenes), but whereas Paulson performs it so literally that it's like she's trying to shove a book through your ear, Lavin treats the story with the honest reverence of a committed actor.
Director Lynne Meadow is lucky to have Lavin (well, not lucky--they previously collaborated in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife), because without her, Collected Stories would be as blatant as Paulson. This isn't entirely an insult--the writing is smooth, and it's always very clear what's going on--but the lack of subtlety makes some of the scenes snub-nosedly bland. The point of each scene is always stressed, often more than once, and that makes the show more like an anthologized collection than a full story. (Though again, at least Lavin's portrayal of Steiner actually ages, like a fine wine.) Worse, the play ultimately boils down to two of Steiner's writing tips: "Telling relieves the need to write" and "If you forget it, it probably wasn't worth writing in the first place." There's a reason so much of this review focuses on Lavin's acting: that's the memorable bit. The rest is just a too-traditional play, one that's written with dated references and a slow pace befitting an older audience, or one that no longer wishes to think too long or too hard on any given subject.